The Variety of Transcendent States During Meditation

The Variety of Transcendent States During Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Ancient masters described intense transcendent states that result from meditation. A true awakening, transformation of consciousness, oneness with the ALL. Many esoterics have glimpsed these levels of consciousness, and for a few it became a persistent state – enlightenment.” – Future Thinkers

 

Millions of people worldwide seek out transcendent experiences by engaging in practices, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer. Others use drugs such as peyote, mescaline, LSD, ayahuasca and psilocybin to induce these experiences. Transcendent experiences have many characteristics which are unique to the experiencer, their religious context, and their present situation. But, the common, central feature of transcendence is a sense of oneness, that all things are contained in a single thing, a sense of union with the universe and/or God and everything in existence. This includes a loss of the personal self. What they used to refer to as the self is experienced as just a part of an integrated whole. People who have had these experiences report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. Although transcendent experiences can vary widely, they all contain this experience of oneness.

 

I published a summary and review of these characteristics in a paper entitles “A Model of Enlightened/Mystical/Awakened Experience. It can be found on Research Gate at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281807307_A_Model_of_EnlightenedMysticalAwakened_Experience.

 

Because of their relatively rare, ineffable, and completely subjective characteristics, transcendent experiences have received only a small amount of scientific attention. This, however, flies in the face of their importance to humans of spirituality. They are central to the human search for the nature and meaning of existence. Hence, there is a need for greater scientific attention to transcendent experiences.

 

In today’s Research News article “A Systematic Review of Transcendent States Across Meditation and Contemplative Traditions.” Wahbeh and colleagues summarize the published peer-reviewed scientific literature on transcendent experiences occurring during meditation. They identified 25 studies involving a total of 672 participants that measured a variety of physiological, psychological, and experiential variables during or after the experience of transcendence during meditation.

 

They found that “as meditation progresses, a person’s sense of agency, location and boundaries in time and space become weaker and the sense of self dissolves”. This was associated with relaxed wakefulness which included decreased respiration, skin conductivity, and muscle relaxation, increase in the brain’s alpha rhythm power, alpha blocking, and changes in brain area interconnectedness and activity. The meditators report experiencing “a sense of timelessness, spacelessness, unconditional love, peace, profound joy, and loss of boundaries of the self. In Christian contemplative traditions, there is a “transformative presence of God” and religious ecstasy.” The meditators report changes in perception that are reflected in changes in brain activity in the sensory cortices. Phenomenologically these changes are reported to not alter the present sensory environment but transcends it producing a sense on oneness of all things.

 

The studies reported were very heterogenous with different methodologies, measurements, and focus and with great differences in scientific quality and bias. This is unfortunate, as this is such an important area of study. There is a need for more work under similar conditions with standardized measurements and tighter experimental controls. Rather than considering the published research as definitive, it should be viewed as a first step in the investigation of transcendent experiences during meditation. But, the published studies to date produce a tantalizing glimpse into these states, reflecting an altered interpretation of reality and perhaps insight into the nature of being.

 

“during transcendent states, we slip into an altered state of consciousness different from our ordinary waking or rational consciousness. “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” – William James

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Wahbeh H, Sagher A, Back W, Pundhir P, Travis F. A Systematic Review of Transcendent States Across Meditation and Contemplative Traditions. Explore (NY). 2018 Jan – Feb;14(1):19-35. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2017.07.007. Epub 2017 Oct 23.

 

Background

Across cultures and throughout history, transcendent states achieved through meditative practices have been reported. The practices to attain transcendent states vary from transcendental meditation to yoga to contemplative prayer, to other various forms of sitting meditation. While these transcendent states are ascribed many different terms, those who experience them describe a similar unitive, ineffable state of consciousness. Despite the common description, few studies have systematically examined transcendent states during meditation.

Objectives

The objectives of this systematic review were to: 1) characterize studies evaluating transcendent states associated with meditation in any tradition; 2) qualitatively describe physiological and phenomenological outcomes collected during transcendent states and; 3) evaluate the quality of these studies using the Quality Assessment Tool.

Methods

Medline, PsycINFO, CINAHL, AltHealthWatch, AMED, and the Institute of Noetic Science Meditation Library were searched for relevant papers in any language. Included studies required adult participants and the collection of outcomes before, during, or after a reported transcendent state associated with meditation.

Results

Twenty-five studies with a total of 672 combined participants were included in the final review. Participants were mostly male (61%; average age 39 ± 11 years) with 12.7 ± 6.6 (median 12.6; range 2–40) average years of meditation practice. A variety of meditation traditions were represented: (Buddhist; Christian; Mixed (practitioners from multiple traditions); Vedic: Transcendental Meditation and Yoga). The mean quality score was 67 ± 13 (100 highest score possible). Subjective phenomenology and the objective outcomes of electroencephalography (EEG), electrocardiographyelectromyographyelectrooculogramevent-related potentialsfunctional magnetic resonance imagingmagnetoencephalography, respiration, and skin conductance and response were measured. Transcendent states were most consistently associated with slowed breathing, respiratory suspension, reduced muscle activity and EEG alpha blocking with external stimuli, and increased EEG alpha power, EEG coherence, and functional neural connectivity. The transcendent state is described as being in a state of relaxed wakefulness in a phenomenologically different space-time. Heterogeneity between studies precluded any formal meta-analysis and thus, conclusions about outcomes are qualitative and preliminary.

Conclusions

Future research is warranted into transcendent states during meditation using more refined phenomenological tools and consistent methods and outcome evaluation.

https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.shsu.edu/science/article/pii/S1550830717300460

“I am that”

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“I am that”

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

This well-known phrase originated from the sage Nisargadatta Maharaj. When he was young his Guru ordered him to attend to the sense ‘I am’ and to give attention to nothing else. He embraced that instruction totally and devoted himself to meditating upon it. Upon awakening he recognized “I am that.”

 

This simple phrase summarizes the core of most awakening experiences, seeing all as one. In this oneness experience the individual disappears and everything is seen as contained in pure awareness which is the one thing. “I am that” actually doesn’t recognize an “I” or a “that.” They are one. So, what we refer to as “I” is exactly the same thing as all other things or “that”. There is no distinction.

 

This is a seminal teaching. It’s so simple that its profoundness can be missed. Meditate on that, the I am-ness, the sense that is behind the senses, the awareness that is the very core of our being. Perhaps, just perhaps, that “you are that” will reveal itself.

 

If indeed everything is the same and simply an expression of the whole inseparable reality then everything should treated with great reverence. We should have as much regard for garbage as we have for ourselves. In fact, a notable characteristic of Zen Masters is that they gladly engage is mundane and seemingly distasteful tasks such as cleaning floors and toilets with the same joy and reverence that they treat meditation. If everything is one then there is no distinction between good and bad things or between engaging and distasteful activities.

 

This also holds true for other people. If we are all one then there is no reason to act toward anyone any different from anyone else. The Great Commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ makes perfect sense as your neighbor is yourself.

 

Acting negatively or destructively toward anything or anyone degrades the whole which includes the self. It makes no sense to do so. It is in essence self-injurious to harm a flea. The environment deserves the same reverence as people as there is no distinction between the two. To cut down rain forests is equivalent to amputating a leg they are equally injurious to the singular one.

 

In most spiritual teachings love is a focus. We are told to love our neighbor and even our enemy. If they and us are one, of course we should love them all. To the sage, the oneness of all things is the essence of love. Everything is love. The first Great Commandment to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ also makes sense as everything is the Devine and everything is love.

 

So, the teaching of ‘I am that’ is the foundation upon which most spiritual teachings rest. I we truly accept that ‘I am that’ then we will live our lives very differently, with reverence, love, and respect for everything.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Resurrection

Sunrise

 

By John M. de Castro

 

“To rise from history to mystery is to experience the resurrection of the body here now, as an eternal reality; to experience the parousia, the presence in the present, which is the spirit; to experience the reincarnation of the incarnation, the second coming; which is his coming in us.”
— Norman O. Brown

 

The Christian holy day of Easter is a celebration of the biblical story of the resurrection of the Christ from death. This death was a release from massive suffering inflicted upon him in life and his resurrection was a rebirth of the Christ as pure, everlasting, spirit. Similarly, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, reports experiencing a resurrection while meditating under the Bodhi tree around 2500 years ago, well before the time of the reported resurrection of the Christ. This also released him from suffering and he was reborn as pure everlasting awareness, spirit. Whether these stories are to be believed literally or as metaphors for spiritual awakening may be very important for the deep religious faith of some. But, regardless of their religious contexts the stories can be regarded as a profound teaching regarding existence and our true nature.

 

The power of these stories are magnified by the fact that death is greatly feared. In fact, humans rank death as their second greatest fear. That fear is based in part of a fear of the process of dying, with possible great pain and suffering over extended periods. Most of us have witnessed such a death and those who haven’t have heard horrible stories. So, this fear is based upon data and can be seen as reasonable, if maybe overdone. But, the fear of death is also based upon an existential fear; the fear of extinction or a fear of the unknown. The only data that we have available regarding what transpires after death are from stories of resurrection. For those who have faith and believe the stories, they produce great comfort in promising a pleasing existence after death. For those who don’t believe them, existential fear is very real. As a result, we are fascinated and intrigued by the idea of resurrection.

 

Indeed, we love the idea of resurrection so much that we have a mock practice once a year. We treat each New Year’s Day as a resurrection, a time of renewal and resolutions to better oneself. Christians revel in the idea of being born again, not a physical but a spiritual rebirth, a spiritual resurrection. Both of these, though, are artificial resurrections that don’t involve actual death and are completely under the minds control. But, they do emphasize the importance to people of the idea of being reborn, to fundamentally change, to change what is into something better.

Near death experiences (NDEs) are looked on by many as indicators of what lies beyond death, as the individual gets very close to absolute death. The nervous system flat-lines, but is revived, resurrected and the nervous system returns to relatively normal activity. The individual can then retrospectively report on their experiences. Stories of NDEs are often celebrated in books such as “Proof of Heaven” and “To Heaven and Back” and can become very popular movies such as “Heaven is for Real.” These “resurrections” fascinate people, evidencing our powerful need to relieve our deep fear of death. People who have experienced NDEs report a variety of experiences including sensations of floating up and viewing the scene around them; experiencing a beautiful, otherworldly place; meeting other beings sometimes identified as angels, God, and lost relatives or friends; recall of events in their lives; feelings of oneness and connection, and an overwhelming, transcendent love.

 

People who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) feel that they were very real and a spiritual revelation. They are often profoundly changed by them. But, in science, in order for an observation to be judged reliable and valid it must be able to be observed by more than one person at the same time and reliably and repeatedly reproduced. NDEs are subjective experiences and as such cannot be validated in this way. Science also requires tests of interpretations and again NDEs have not be amenable to scientific testing. One experiment with lab rats demonstrated that as the brain is dying there is an amazing spike of high levels of activity. Some scientists believe that NDEs are what is experienced as the brain spasms just prior to shutting down. There is currently no evidence to confirm or deny the spiritual nature of NDEs. But, if they are to be believed, they point to a wondrous, blissful, life after death

 

We tend to forget that every evening our consciousness ceases, dies, and every morning it is reinstated, resurrected. The new day is a brand new existence with opportunities to experience, grow, and develop. As the sage Thich Nhat Hanh states in his morning Gatha “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” This rebirth every morning is a wondrous opportunity to begin anew, to reinvent ourselves, and work toward ending suffering in ourselves and others. If it doesn’t work today, keep in mind that tomorrow morning another resurrection will occur. What a precious gift!

 

Resurrection is seen as involving a reemergence from a physical death. But our bodies, including our brains, are dying and renewing constantly. Over varying amounts of time every cell in the body dies and is replaced with a new cell. We have completely different bodies than we had a few years ago. In a sense we’re undergoing a constant continuous process of resurrection.

But, it’s not just our bodies that undergo resurrection, so do our experiences. In fact, our experiences are reborn (resurrected) in every moment. Each moment only exists for a flash and then ceases, dies, never to be repeated, and a new conscious experience replaces it, is resurrected. This underscores the importance of present moment awareness. It emphasizes how critical it is to fully experience and enjoy the precious onetime moments of our existence. To be unaware is like having a Christ or Buddha like resurrection and not noticing! So, death and resurrection are going on constantly. They occur routinely due to the impermanence of all experiences. A resurrection occurs in every moment with both the body and experience.

 

The Buddha described his resurrection as an awakening. As he described it, we all live in a state of complete delusion. We believe that there is an external physical world containing life and death that we only experience and witnesses. He taught that if we can break through this veil of delusion we can emerge with an understanding of our true nature and the nature of the universe where there is no birth, life, and death. Instead, we emerge as pure awareness. What we experience as life is simply a construct of that awareness and nothing more. In other words, our concept of reality dies and is resurrected in a new form that reveals a completely different reality. Actual experiences are not different, only how we view and interpret them. This is the state that he called awakened or enlightened. It transcends life and death, so there is no need for a resurrection as there is never a true birth nor a true death, only those that are experienced in an everlasting awareness. It’s a shift in what is being experienced but not a loss of anything.

 

The Buddha taught that no one should take this on faith. No one should believe him. Rather, try out his path and see for yourself what happens. In a sense, this is scientific, as it’s truth or falseness can only be judged by one’s own experience. There are clues that occur along the way as meditation is practiced. Changes start occurring almost immediately as meditator begins to see and understand, better and better, the nature of experiences, and the reactions, thoughts, and emotions that are evoked by them. These improvements occur gradually as meditation is practiced over time. But, the individual becomes more integrated, better able to cope with emotions and stress, and far happier. These benefits are sufficient reward even if the ultimate change of enlightenment should never occur.

 

So, we are confronted with a number of different accounts of resurrection. The notion of a resurrection after death cannot ever be confirmed except after death. NDE resurrections can only be personally confirmed if you’re unlucky enough (or lucky enough) to come very, very, close to actual physical death. But, the resurrection of the moment you can confirm in every moment. The resurrection each morning you can confirm daily. The enlightenment resurrection is much more difficult to confirm. But, if the effort is made, the Buddha assures us that it can be confirmed and verified by everyone who engages in the practice, follows the path, and experiences awakening. He urges everyone to find out for themselves.

 

All of these ideas and notions of resurrection can help the individual to become more and more relaxed and perhaps a bit excited at the idea of their own personal resurrection. Something will happen eventually, regardless of our desires otherwise, so, we might as well greet it and welcome it as an opportunity for an answer to an eternal question.

 

“The symbolic language of the crucifixion is the death of the old paradigm; resurrection is a leap into a whole new way of thinking.” – Deepak Chopra
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

What is it that you really want?

 

To clarify your aspiration means knowing exactly what it is that your spiritual life aspires to, not as a future goal but in each moment. In other words, what do you value most in your life—not in the sense of moral values, but in the sense of what is most important to you.” – Adyashanti

 

Most people do not know what they really want from life in general or contemplative practice specifically. In terms of life, people will tell you that they want a successful career, a new home, to find someone to love and be loved by, etc. but their actions suggest that they really want something else, power, a status symbol, a sex partner. In terms of contemplative practice, they will tell you that they want to be closer to god, understand themselves, become enlightened etc., but again their actions suggest that they really want to appear to others as a spiritual person, create a desirable self-image, add a major item to their spiritual resume.

 

Discovering what you really want requires contemplation and ruthless honesty with yourself. The best way to begin to investigate your true desires is very simple; just see where you invest your time and energy. Don’t think about your ideas about what are your aspirations. Rather simply look at what you do to truly reveal them. What you truly value is what you invest in your precious time in. So, look at that, but above all be honest with yourself.

 

If you spend a large amount of time simply watching TV shows or movies, or listening to music that’s perfectly fine. But ask yourself exactly why are you doing this? Is this for relaxation and entertainment or are you escaping from confronting or dealing with deeper and more important issues. What is it you’re trying to accomplish or not accomplish? Look at this deeply. If you spend a lot of time with friends, that’s perfectly fine. But ask yourself exactly why are you doing this? Do you do this out of love for them or do you do this to obtain their approval and love? Look deeply and honestly.

 

When there is a mismatch between what you say you want and what you do, it is a formula for unhappiness. In psychology it is called cognitive dissonance and it produces an uncomfortable state with a diffuse anxiety. This is why it is so important to clarify what you really want. There is no need to judge one aspiration as good and another as bad. That is counterproductive. What you want, is simply what you want, and it’s neither right nor wrong. But knowing it is the route to aligning your actions with your desires. This allows you to pursue your goals with direction and clarity. But more importantly, this signals that you’re seeing yourself as you really are and acting with coherence and integrity.

 

This seems to be such an easy question to answer, but it’s not. The ego is devious and clever in inventing seemingly reasonable and innocuous reasons and excuses to explain what you’re doing. So, spend some time with this issue. Don’t believe your minds first responses. Investigate them. See if they match up to what you’re actually doing. Then contemplate it further. It’s much harder than you think and may actually upset you as answers start to emerge that may not be exactly aligned with your beliefs about yourself. But, this is actually a good thing signaling an opportunity to grow and develop. The one prerequisite though is that you must be completely honest with yourself.

 

It is very important to understand that there are not right or wrong answers. Whatever you discover are just what they are and perfectly OK. But, identifying them is the start to actually satisfying these needs and desires. You may be surprised. If you are, that’s great. It means that you’ve spent some very productive time that can lead to a much happier life.

 

So, for life and general and for your contemplative practice invest in identifying what it is that you really want.

 

“When we take our attention off the chatter of our mind and put our intention onto developing our intuition, we learn to play with much subtler dimensions. Listening and moving from the heart instead of the intellect, we make wiser choices rather than smarter ones, which can serve us better in the end.” Lynn Newman

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies